Heat, sizzle fire up SF Playhouse’s Seared

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Chef Harry (Brian Dykstra, left) and server Rodney (Larry Powell) get ready for a big night at the restaurant in the world premiere of Theresa Rebeck’s Seared at San Francisco Playhouse. Below: Harry and Emily (Alex Sunderhaus), a consultant, argue over the future of the restaurant. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

I’m going to spoil something right off the bat about Theresa Rebeck’s fantastic new play Seared now receiving its world premiere from San Francisco Playhouse: there is no conventional romance. Just because the cast consists of one woman and three men does not mean there’s going to be a burgeoning love story or a sordid triangle or break-ups or make-ups. No, the central love story comes out of a friendship and business partnership between a chef and a money guy who open a small restaurant in Brooklyn.

This is a workplace story, and though it’s set entirely in the kitchen of the restaurant, it hits on big themes about that tricky intersection between artistic integrity and sustainable commercial success. The artist in this case is chef Harry (the superb and entirely believable Brian Dykstra), a genius behind the stove whose superb work fills the restaurant’s 16 settings every night and has started to garner the attention of the wider world. With a recent favorable mention in New York magazine, Harry’s partner, Mike (the ever-reliable and ever-wonderful Rod Gnapp) has brought in a consultant, Emily (a pitch-perfect Alex Sunderhaus), to save the little eatery from imminent demise.

Emily and Harry clash, but then again Harry clashes with just about everybody because that’s what he does. Everything is a fight with him except his interactions with the restaurant’s sole employee, server Rodney (an excellent Larry Powell), whose relaxed humor diffuses tension while masking his deep devotion to Harry and his own culinary skills.

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The world that Rebeck creates in the Playhouse commission is incredibly real, and not just because the fully functional set by Bill English is so convincing you half expect the dishes created up there to be passed around to salivating audience members. Rebeck’s world is fueled by ego and friendship and complicated interactions that are both volatile and tender, funny and deeply angry, and that’s a world that bears watching for more than two hours.

Rebeck’s play, flawlessly directed by Margarett Perry, is so involving that at a certain point in this darkly funny, deliciously detailed drama you expect an overheated audience member to stand up and shout something along the lines of, “Just cook the fucking scallops already!” While disruptive and inappropriate, that would also mark a triumph for Rebeck and her cast and creative team. Never has the creation of a seafood dish fueled such dramatic agony and tension. There’s really not much plot here – a struggling restaurant attempts to get into the black – but everything feels huge and important, a stovetop epic if you will, and it’s thrilling.

It’s that much easier to fall into this world because it is so perfectly and convincingly created. Of course English’s set helps (as do Robert Hand’s lights and Theodore J.J. Hulsker’s sound design), but Dykstra is thoroughly convincing has he chops and sautés and sauces with real knives and real flame. He has to act (powerfully) while not drawing blood or creating blisters or accidentally stabbing a costar. He does it all with such aplomb that our focus happily rests on the characters and their interactions.

When Dykstra’s Harry goes off on something (“No takers for the lamb – I hate the 21st century”), it’s like verbal fireworks. The thought of a $3 donut triggers one such speech, and to hear him talk about the wonder of butter is an epicurean/existential delight. He also rants about the artificiality of money (“the biggest lie ever perpetrated”) vs. the reality of food to great effect. But Harry’s not the only one with great moments. All the characters get them, even Emily, the seemingly slick consultant whose use of the words “amazing” and “impeccable” could inspire a drinking game. She goes off on Harry in an artist vs. asshole with talent rant that includes the zinger, “Every reasonably talented white man has been told he’s a genius.” Ouch. And hooray.

Seared turns out to be not unlike the dishes its chef creates: artfully made, crafted with the best possible ingredients and served with confident flair. That it’s so delicious and deeply satisfying makes it the haute cuisine of contemporary drama.

Theresa Rebeck’s Seared continues through Nov. 12 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$125. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

Jonesing for cosmic connection in ACT’s Joneses

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The cast of American Conservatory Theater’s The Realistic Joneses includes, from left, James Wagner as John Jones, Allison Jean White as Pony, Rebecca Watson as Jennifer Jones and Rod Gnapp as Bob Jones. Below: Watson’s Jen and Gnapp’s Bob hang out in the backyard in Will Eno’s comic drama. Photos by Kevin Berne

The topic is: things that have happened. That broad, yet somehow quite specific, statement comes from a character in Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses now on stage at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater. Another broad yet specific topic might be: lives that are lived.

Eno is one of those playwrights whose gift seems to be making raising the bizarre, often absurd experience of human existence to the level of cosmic grace and beauty. How he does that exactly is a bit of a mystery, as it should be, but it’s on fully display in Joneses even more than it was in several of his remarkable earlier plays such as Tragedy: A Tragedy and Middletown. Eno has a dash of Samuell Beckett, more than a pinch of Thornton Wilder and a heaping helping of any smart stand-up comedian you’d care to name.

With The Joneses, Eno takes two couples, both with the last name Jones (my grandfather once told me everyone was born Jones but only the good ones stay that way) and lets them reflect on each other and affect one another. A quiet, four-person play would seem to be out of place on the massive Geary stage, but that is not the case. As director Loretta Greco is well aware, Eno is micro and macro. There’s an epic quality to his intimacy, and that’s reflected in Greco’s beautiful production, which features a set by Andrew Boyce that offers the backyards of two homes in suburban American (somewhere near the mountains and sea, we’re told). There’s a massive tree canopy that allows some visibility of the stars, and that’s important. As I said before, this play opens up in its curious way, to the cosmic. Size matters here, and the production makes the vastness count.

One quiet night, interrupted only by the rustling and chirping of night sound, Bob and Jennifer Jones (Rod Gnapp and Rebecca Watson) are outside at their picnic table. You could say they were talking, but that becomes a topic of discussion: are they talking, really talking? Or are they “throwing words at each other.” Just as they might be veering from throwing to talking, they are interrupted by new neighbors, Pony (Allison Jean White) and John (James Wagner), bearing greetings and a bottle of wine.

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From here, we discover interesting connections within this quartet as Eno shuffles them up – a grocery store meeting here, late-night backyard encounter there – and casts a shadow of mortality in the form of an illness one character calls “the Benny Goodman Experience.” There is nothing “normal” about this play, not its rhythms, not its character interactions, not its trajectory. And yet, as it proceeds through its one hour and 45 minutes, it gains a weight and a poignancy that is surprising, especially given how many good laughs it offers. The wonderful cast and Greco can take a lot of credit for that, but the real architect here is Eno.

The engine of the play is John, a man who is searching and struggling and suffering. The path his thoughts, and consequently his words, take give rise to much of the humor because he’s the king of the unfiltered non sequitor. He says of his wife, “What my lady wants, with some huge and basic exceptions, my lady gets.” Or when he asks Jennifer if she has any brothers, Jen answers that she has two half-sisters. “So that sort of equals a brother,” John says. He also points out later on that “even a hundred-year-old fake is an antique.”

Pony and John have their comically absurd moments as well. Pony, in a moment of frustration with her life, says, “I feel like I should go to med school or get my hair cut or something.” Or something. Then she muses on other tracks her life might have taken: “I probably would’ve overdosed on drugs, if I’d gotten into drugs and then taken too many.” Only Jennifer seems to be the fully anchored grownup in the group, the mother figure who is as lost and in search of something as the rest of them. She just functions in everyday life at a higher level than they do.

The Realistic Joneses is, in its subdued, humorous way, stunning, a deeply felt examination of what we do with this life and these brains and these souls. The ending, as surprising as everything else in the play, brought to mind the comedian Rita Rudner’s deep philosophical query: “Any questions? Any answers? Anyone care for a mint?”

Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses continues thorugh March 12 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$105 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Aurora builds a mighty (funny) Monster

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The cast of Amy Freed’s comedy The Monster Builder – (from left) Rod Gnapp as Andy, Sierra Jolene as Tamsin, Nancy Carlin as Pamela, Thomas Gorrebeeck as Dieter and Tracy Hazas as Rita – believe they have avenged the evil of Danny Scheie as “starchitect” Gregor in the Aurora Theatre Company production. Below: Jolene and Scheie work out the intricacies of a design. Photos by David Allen

When salsa splatters across the unsealed Carrara marble, the horror of the architect played by Danny Scheie resounds through the intimate Aurora Theatre Company. An hors d’oeuvre has fallen on the floor, and after admonishing the clumsiness of his girlfriend, the architect demands a napkin and some vodka to clean it up. The marble is not stained, and the architect, one Gregor Zobrowski, calms down enough to say, “Crisis averted.” But is the crisis averted? Not even a little bit, and that’s the fun of Amy Freed’s The Monster Builder, a very funny riff on Ibsen’s The Master Builder (which the Aurora produced in 2006).

San Francisco writer Freed once again partners with the inimitable Scheie – past collaborations include You, Nero and Restoration Comedy – to create a comedy that skewers the world of egomaniacal “starchitects” and their sometimes godawful creations as well as the bad architectural taste of the general public that aims for nostalgia but settles for utilitarian garbage.

The fun of Freed’s play is watching Gregor navigate his giant ego through a cocktail party at his newly completed masterwork, an island residence made only of glass and marble with no walls and, apparently, no place but the floor to sit down (the humorous angular set is by Tom Buderwitz). Gregor is toying with a young married couple, Rita and Dieter (Tracy Hazas and Thomas Gorrebeeck), who run an idealistic architecture firm whose goal is bring back the commons in some way and help people come together the way they used to.

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Gregor’s girlfriend Tamsin (Sierra Jolene) tries to fill in the social graces that the master architect lacks, but this is the Gregor show. Director Art Manke keeps the comedy fairly subdued at first. Scheie is strong and funny but reigns in what can sometimes be a wild on-stage personality. There’s a slow build, so to speak, at work here, and the payoff involves a leap into some theatrical wildness involving human sacrifice, revenge and the building of the Abu Dhabi Tower of Justice and Interrogation. Oh, and there may be something supernaturally Faustian going on as well. One of Scheie’s finest moments here (among many) is the astonishing measure of disgust he can express in three simple words: “arts and crafts.”

If Ibsen’s Master Builder had some sort of troll in his soul, well Gregor’s got something even bigger and nastier – a mystery that is only partly solved by play’s end. There’s a Young Frankenstein vibe to the second act of Monster Builder, and that’s a whole lot of fun. At one point, in full villain mode, Gregor is pounding out Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in the church he has converted into his office. It’s really just a set up so he can say to Rita, “Put your hand on my organ.” As smart as Freed can be, she also can’t resist a cheap joke, and we love her for that. Who else would reference an Alzheimer’s institute made of a series of mazes?

The game cast, expertly balancing zany farce and brainy comedy, also includes Nancy Carlin as an old-money dame with a juicy remodeling job and Rod Gnapp as her husband, a man whose occupation can inspire surprising reactions. There’s a lively camaraderie among the actors, and when, in Act 2, they all (save one) join together in a common pursuit, there’s a satisfying enjoyment in their efforts.

Part farce, part examination of the world we make for ourselves, The Monster Builder erects a lovely, lively structure around a dark heart that beats with the sounds of delight in every crack of humanity’s foundation.

Amy Freed’s The Monster-Builder continues an extended run through Dec. 20 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$60. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.

Magic’s Five Minutes misses the mark

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Harpo (Jomar Tagatac, left) and Bozo (Patrick Alparone, right) prepare to bring Mo (Rod Gnapp) home in Linda McLean’s Every Five Minutes, a world premiere play at the Magic Theatre. Photo: by Jennifer Reiley

I loved Linda McLean’s Any Given Day so much that I proclaimed it my favorite show of 2012 (read my review here). And that makes it all the harder to convey just how much I disliked her world premiere Every Five Minutes at the Magic Theatre.

In brief, the characters and relationships in the play are assumed rather than established. The use of projections is so excessive it would seem that director Loretta Greco strongly mistrusts her actors’ and McLean’s script’s ability to convey what is necessary for the audience to understand the play.

At the performance I attended, the projection mechanism broke down, so the actors were told to hold and then clear the stage until the problem was resolved. I hoped against hope that the projections wouldn’t return, but they did, and boy were they busy.

I have no doubt whatsoever in the actors’ abilities to convey exactly what McLean’s script required of them without the aid of moving visuals on the big wall behind them. It is possible to portray the horror of mental illness without a surrealist barrage of images, especially when you have Rod Gnapp in the role of a man who has been tortured mercilessly for more than a dozen years. But Gnapp, like the other excellent actors in the cast trying to be compassionate and intense, are trapped in a fragmented, fractured narrative that is neither compelling nor interesting nor even very original. Who are these people and why should we care? That’s never really established, and the play’s 90 minutes feel like the torture the main character was exposed to – and perhaps that’s the intention.

But then the ending comes – and we all play parlor games into the sunset – and it feels, like the play itself, inauthentic, shallow and trying too hard with too little effect.

I feel like I missed something huge here and can’t figure out what it is. So rather than go on, I’d like to shift attention to McLean, whom I interviewed for the San Francisco Chronicle. She talked about the organic process of her writing and how she follows where it leads. She also talks about feeling a sense of success as a playwright, and it includes an insightful perspective on writing that works and writing that doesn’t.

I think success also means you’ve survived at least one cycle of things not working out, or not being able to write, or what you’re writing is not what people want to see. You come back from that in a slightly fearless way, not changing the way you write to adapt, but keeping true to what you know of your own creativity.

Read the entire feature here.

Linda McLean’s Every Five Minutes continues through April 20 at Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$60. Call 415-441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org.

Say amen – SF Playhouse takes it to Church

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The Divine Plan for Salvation Church holds its first service in San Francisco Playhouse’s Storefront Church by John Patrick Shanley. The cast includes (from left) Gabriel Marin, Derek Fischer, Rod Gnapp, Carl Lumbly, Ray Reinhardt and Gloria Weinstock. BELOW: Lumbly and Marin address politics and spirituality and the battle between noise and stillness. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

In many ways, John Patrick Shanley’s Storefront Church, now at San Francisco Playhouse for a well-timed holiday run, is less about the battle between the material world and the spiritual world and more about finding the most personal of solutions to the stress and pull and darkness of life: being still.

In such a hectic world, stillness seems practically revolutionary, but that’s where the Rev. Chester Kimmich (Carl Lumbly) finds himself: in stillness waiting for an answer or a way to cross the giant black hole that has opened up before him.

The interesting thing in Shanley’s script, and in director Joy Carlin’s marvelously entertaining but deeply felt production, is that being still in the modern world comes with consequences. You can’t pull away from the world for any length of time without the world coming to look for you. In the Reverend’s case, his withdrawal into the realm of contemplation has real-world consequences. The $30,000 he borrowed from his landlady, a woman of great faith, was supposed to refurbish a storefront church. But months later, with the money spent, the church is still not open, and the landlady is facing foreclosure from the bank.

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Is Chester being irresponsible by taking the money and not paying his rent? Or is his devotion so true that stillness and contemplation truly is the only way he can find a solution to his spiritual crisis?

The real world comes calling for Chester in the form of Donaldo (Gabriel Marin) the Bronx borough president who has a personal investment in the Reverend’s fiscal irresponsibility. It turns out that the clash between the ambitious politician and the spiritual seeker is just what each man needed to see himself and his place in the world a little differently.

Sort of a 21st-century It’s a Wonderful Life, weighing the value of the human soul against the human construct of commerce (aka greed), Storefront Church has the nobility of the big questions and the practicality of everyday life. On a fantastic turntable set (by Bill English), we spin through a gritty world of people struggling. Jessie (Gloria Weinstock) and her older husband Ethan (Ray Reinhardt) have financial woes and health concerns to deal with. Their different faiths – she’s a devout Christian, he’s a secular Jew – don’t cause conflict between them. If anything, they seem completely comfortable with their spiritual lives. It’s the money that’s putting on the pressure.

There’s no way that bank employees cannot be the bad guys in this scenario, but loan officer Reed (Rod Gnapp) is pretty sympathetic. Bank president Tom (Derek Fischer), on the other hand, is not. It doesn’t help that Shanley stacks the deck against him by 1) having him actually devour a gingerbread house during a meeting and 2) have him rather implausibly show up to a service at the Rev. Chester’s humble, unfinished church.

Somehow, though, it all works. No one is a monster here, and when the spirit begins to move people, the warmth and emotion comes as much from a simple gathering of people and their connection as it does from the religion itself.

In a way, that’s what theater itself does – gathers strangers, attempts to make them feel something, both individually and collectively, and leave a little bit different. In a broad sense, every theater is a storefront church, and right now the San Francisco Playhouse is shining with a little extra light.

John Patrick Shanley’s Storefront Church continues through Jan. 11 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$100. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

Wonky tone buries Magic’s Buried Child

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Vince (Patrick Alparone, standing) comes to terms with his family legacy and with Dodge, his grandfather (Rod Gnapp), in Sam Shepard’s Buried Child at Magic Theatre. Below: Tilden (James Wagner) shucks some corn, much to the consternation of his father, Dodge. Photos by Jennifer Reiley

By all rights, the Magic Theatre’s season-opening production of Buried Child by Sam Shepard, the man who helped build the Magic’s national reputation during his 12-year stay from the mid-’70s into the early ’80s, should be a triumph. Continuing the five-year Sheparding America celebration of the writer’s work, the production should be a potent reminder of just how electrifying, unsettling and beautiful Shepard’s writing can be.

This is not that production.

Loretta Greco, the Magic’s artistic director, struggles establishing the tone from the very start, and though some of the performances, most notably by Rod Gnapp and James Wagner, connect powerfully with the world of the play, much of the cast seems adrift in Shepard’s world, which is somewhere between reality and fantasy, truth and illusion.

Gnapp plays Dodge, the patriarch of an Illinois farm family that has seen better, more prosperous (and more sane) days. Dodge is relegated to a dingy couch, where he further damages his straining lungs with cigarettes and dulls the pain with whiskey hidden under the cushions. Gnapp plays grizzled and grumpy better than just about anybody, and he masterfully conveys humor and menace in ways that allow him to live in the naturalism of Shepard’s play and its lyricism.

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The same is true of Wagner as Tilden, Dodge’s son who was once a hometown football star but then came into some mysterious trouble in New Mexico and is now a damaged shell. Tilden’s damage somehow connects him to the enigmatic side of Shepard’s play. Every time Tilden heads out into the rainy backyard, he returns with armloads of fresh corn and carrots. Never mind that no one has planted any vegetables back there for 35 years. The only thing they’ve planted, if we can believe the family legend, is an unwanted baby boy.

The surrealism of the play kicks in when Tilden’s grown son (Patrick Alparone making the best of a shallow role) shows up for a surprise visit and no one seems to recognize him, which sends the young man into a tailspin, questioning his very existence. This is where Shepard’s play starts to feel like an inferior version of Pinter’s The Homecoming, especially in this production, where actors tend to pose awkwardly, as if for soap opera cameras, and deliver their lines in stilted cadence. There are scenes that feel almost like Shepard parodies here, which adds nothing to the tone of this Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which should be as creepy as it is enthralling.

You can feel Shepard leaning into Pinter throughout the play, with definite nods to Albee. But Buried Child, at least in this production, feels dated, confused and underdeveloped.

Sam Shepard’s Buried Child continues an extended run through Oct. 13 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$60. Call 415-441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org.

Marin offers a real beauty of a Queen

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Beth Wilmurt (left) as Maureen, Rod Gnapp (center) as Pato and Joy Carlin as Mag star in Martin McDongah’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane at Marin Theatre Company. Below: Joseph Salazar’s Ray watches telly while Carlin’s Mag waits for the news. Photos by Kevin Berne

Watching Joy Carlin work her magic Mag Folan in Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane is the epitome of theatrical delight. Here you have one of the great Bay Area actors offering a sly, darkly humorous, even compassionate portrayal of a woman who could easily be described as a nightmare. Carlin, like the character she’s playing, appears to be a lovely older woman. But perhaps unlike Carlin, Mag is something of a sociopath. And that’s a trait she’s passed along to the youngest of her three daughters, Maureen, played with sinewy gusto by Beth Wilmurt.

That mother-daughter relationship is the crux of Beauty Queen, and the source of its humor, its drama and its horror. Director Mark Jackson’s production for Marin Theatre Company etches that relationship with realism and a savory dash of melodrama. Neither Carlin nor Wilmurt is a scenery chewer, so everything they do comes from character and is directly invested in their mutual dependence/hatred. These marvelous actors create a finely detailed portrait of a mother and daughter that is so fraught, you flinch and still you can’t turn away.

McDonagh’s play (now 17 years on since its premiere in Ireland) is a soundly constructed dramatic work that puts on a good show, involves its audience and delivers something with heft and abundant laughs. It’s hard to ask for much more from a two-hour evening of theater. Set in a remote village in western Ireland, the action simply involves a needy, manipulative mother (she’s 70 but acts much older) and her 40-year-old spinster daughter who is stuck with care-taking duties and has never had much of a life of her own.

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From the start, there’s something sinister in this little house – evoked by Nina Ball’s wall-less kitchen/living room set adrift on a stage full of cloudy vagueness and illuminated by York Kennedy’s precise light. Sweetness and light do not dwell here. While Maureen makes endless cups of tea, porridge and vitamin drinks for her carping mother, she jokes about decapitating the old woman and spitting down her neck. And for her part, mother dear wastes no time telling a potential suitor (the estimable Rod Gnapp as Pato Dooley) about her daughter’s stint in a mental institution.

Eventually, the play turns into a sort of Whatever Happened to Baby McJane?, but director Jackson and his excellent cast – which also includes the testy Joseph Salazar as Pato’s brother Ray – don’t go for sensationalism as much as cringe-inducing shock. McDonagh’s play really is a horror show, and when something as sweetly old-fashioned as delivering a love letter goes terribly awry, the results are particularly gory.

But it’s not just about the horror, either. There are interesting wrinkles with characters who may be more divorced from reality than they realize, and that gives the actors even more deliciously meaty moments to play.

The Irish accents, well, they come and they go, but even if they vanish, clarity remains. And really, the most extraordinary thing about this production is the tension between Wilmurt and Carlin, two ferociously good actors creating a mother-daughter bond that is palpable. And terrifying.

Martin McDongah’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane continues through June 16 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $36-$57. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.

Magic’s Se Llama Cristina or What’s in a name?

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Sarah Nina Hayon and Sean San José star in the world premiere of Octavio Solis’ Se Llama Cristina at Magic Theatre. Below: Rod Gnapp is the embodiment of bad guys plaguing the lives of struggling people. Photos by Jennifer Reiley

There are moments when Octavio Solis’ darkly poetic writing leaves me breathless. Take this passage from his world-premiere play Se Llama Cristina as two lovers are driving down a lonely highway. The driver looks at his sleeping passenger and says: “And your head is leanin’ against the window and the passing cars light up your face like a Hollywood starlet. Famous, then not. Famous, then not.”

Truth be told, there are also moments when the San Francisco playwright’s writing leaves me befuddled, and that happens, too, in Se Llama Cristina. But confusion and mystery is part of the foundation – albeit rocky a rocky one – on which this intriguing drama is built.

Essentially Solis is telling the story of everyday triumph, specifically the ability move beyond the horrors of the past to stake a claim as a functioning – however flawed – human being capable of sustaining important relationships such as spouse to spouse or parent to child. Parenting is the guttering neon sign at the center of this creation, flickering at various levels of brightness until it all but explodes by the end.

Solis eschews a linear narrative and, curiously, turns his protagonists into audience members as they watch their story unfold in bits and pieces, with flashbacks within flashbacks and even flash-forwards.

Lights come up on a dingy, battered room (the low-ceilinged set is by Andrew Boyce). A man and a woman are just coming to after what appears to have been quite a bender. The guy still has the rubber strap tied around his arm with a syringe embedded in his skin.

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Neither of these characters knows their names, where they are or how they came to be so drugged up. The doors and windows of the room are locked, and there’s a crib in the corner. Only instead of a baby, the crib holds a piece of fried chicken, a drumstick.

We’re just as confused as the characters on stage, and when the first explanatory flashback happens, we learn things right along with them. How that works exactly, I’m not sure. I know how it works for the audience, but what exactly are the characters seeing in that room? That’s really too literal a question for this play, which has the feeling of a fever dream leading up to the making of a pivotal life decision.

Director Loretta Greco’s production feels substantial, even at only 85 minutes. As the play jerks us back and forth in time and tone – flights of poetry crash against gritty realism – she guides her cast from a strong emotionally grounded center.

Sean San José and Sarah Nina Hayon are superb as broken people who don’t expect to accomplish much in this life beyond surviving and making mistakes. They find each other by accident and begin a journey, sometimes a reluctant one, toward realizing potential they didn’t know they had. As rough and gritty as this play is, there’s a current of hope that continually pushes through the violence and neglect and poverty (of many kinds) in these people’s lives.

San José, whose character is a would-be poet, is especially adept at navigating Solis’ dramatic turns from naturalism to fantasy. He has two scenes on the phone, one with Hayon and one with a figure from his past, and both are incredible. One of those conversations is mostly in Spanish, and you don’t have to understand a word of the language to feel your heart break along with the character.

If you want charm and menace in equal measure, Rod Gnapp is your go-to guy. Here he embodies every bad choice a woman can make, and though he’s a walking nightmare (an effect augmented by Sara Huddleston’s sly sound design), he’s also funny as hell and completely recognizable as someone you may know.

The performances are so good here (the cast also includes a nice turn by Karina Gutiérrez) that they almost compensate for the ways in which the fractured structure confuse the narrative and cloud the emotional impact. Piecing it all together isn’t all that hard, but the emotional through line gets somewhat clouded because there are so many questions about what is reality and what isn’t. Questions are good in drama, but when those questions are straddling dream and reality, it’s hard to know what to trust and grab hold of so that by the end you’re holding on to what’s important in this story.

But then again, that’s so much of what Se Llama Cristina is about: what’s worth holding onto and what’s better left behind. Sometimes you don’t have a choice in that, but sometimes you do.

[bonus interviews]
I talked to director Loretta Greco and playwright Octavio Solis for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Octavio Solis’ Se Llama Cristina continues through Feb. 5 at Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $22-$62. Call 415-441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org.

Aurora scores a smackdown with Chad Deity

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Chad Deity (Beethovan Oden, right) pummels The Bad Guy (Dave Maier) in the Bay Area Premiere of Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity. BELOW: Wrestling promoter EKO (Rod Gnapp, center) lays out his version of the American dream to VP (Nasser Khan, rear left) and The Mace (Tony Sancho). Photos by David Allen

In professional wrestling, we’re told, you can’t kick a guy’s ass without the help of the guy whose ass you’re kicking. Talk about a democracy! Perhaps there’s more to learn from the gaudy world of professional wrestling than we thought.

Playwright Kristoffer Diaz, a self-confessed fan of the fake-out body slams and outsize characters of the pro-wrestling world, seems to think there’s an allegorical relationship between that world and the United States, especially when it comes to racism and the exploitation of labor in the name of almighty capitalism. His play The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity opens the Aurora Theatre Company’s 21st season (or 21st “anniversary” season as the pre-show announcement puts it – why is 21 years an anniversary?).

There’s certainly truth in advertising with this play – it’s incredibly elaborate, and director Jon Tracy’s production is enormous. Imagine a wrestling ring (not regulation size), towering video screens and elaborate rock concert-style lighting surrounding the Aurora’s intimate 150-seat theater. Set designer Nina Ball, lighting designer Kurt Landisman and sound designer Cliff Caruthers have done a remarkable job re-creating the garish arena of fictional operation THE Wrestling in the dignified Aurora space. This is an immersive experience, and that’s part of the fun. Before the show, Dave Maier, the fight director and the guy who plays wrestlers The Bad Guy, Billy Heartland and Old Glory, comes out in his good ol’ buy Billy Heartland guise to train us theatrical types how to behave like wrestling types, which is to say we’re coached to boo the bad guy, chant “champ, champ, champ” whenever Chad Deity comes into the ring and salute and bark “sir, yes sir!” when Old Glory makes his dramatic entrance rappelling from the ceiling.

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Knowing what our role is, the play begins in earnest – and it is an earnest play with something to say about the corrosive power of stereotypes and the never-ending smackdown of the little man in corporate America. The central character is Macedonio “The Mace” Guerra (Tony Sancho), one of the most important guys in the wrestling world because he makes the superstars look good. He’s the character without the character, the highly trained and skilled acrobat/actor who makes it look like the inept big-name wrestlers (like Chad Deity, played with appropriate bluster and grit by Beethovan Oden) look like they know what they’re doing.

In his revealing monologues, beautifully delivered by the charming Sancho, Mace tells us he’s pretty happy with his lot in life. He has loved wrestling since he was kid watching it on Saturday morning TV, and he makes a good living, even if he is smarter, more articulate and more sensitive than most of the other guys in the room. He fully recognizes that pro-wrestling guru Everett K. “EKO” Olson (Rod Gnapp) utilizes racial stereotypes to rile up his audiences, but he bites his tongue and does what is asked of him.

When Mace hears about a Brooklyn hip-hop kid of Indian descent who talks a good game, his mind starts spinning with possibilities and introduces the kid, Vigneshwar “VP” Paduar (Nasser Khan) to his bosses. Promoter EKO immediately sees possibilities in the new kid’s brown skin and turns him into “The Fundamentalist,” a bearded, Osama-like wrestler (who, by the way, can’t even begin to wrestle), whose primary function is to enrage the audience and goad Chad Deity.

The play’s trajectory, which isn’t all that convincing, has Mace rising above skeeviest parts of the wrestling world. If the play’s conclusion lacks emotional heft, it sure is a lot of fun. The bulk of the actual wrestling happens in Act 2, and it’s fantastic to be able to watch it all so close up. The big noisy body slams and power bombs are great, but the most effective moments are actually those in slow motion (as when one of Maier’s wrestlers suffers one of The Fundamentalist’s super kicks known as “The Sleeper Cell”). All the flash of the production is fun, too, especially the video screens full of busty ladies in bikinis with wrestlers opening beer cans on their chests and the like (video design by Jim Gross).

This is a very different kind of show for the Aurora, and that’s fantastic. Some companies open their seasons with a bang (see Berkeley Rep’s Chinglish). The Aurora opens its season with a theatrical ass-whoopin’, but that’s OK. They have full permission from the smiling audience to whoop its collective ass.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed busy Bay Area fight director Dave Maier about his work on The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.


Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity continues through Sept. 30 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$50. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.

Be-handle with care: lost in Spokane

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The best two things about SF Playhouse’s A Behanding in Spokane are Rod Gnapp (left) as Carmichael and Alex Hurt as Mervyn the receptionist. Below: Gnapp surprises Daveed Diggs as Toby and Melissa Quine as Marilyn. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

What did Spokane, Washington ever do to Martin McDonagh? The London-born, Ireland-identified playwright famously wrote six plays, including The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Cripple of Inishmaan, in a year and then moved on to film. His short film, Six Shooter, won an Oscar, and he was nominated again for his screenplay to In Bruges (which he also directed).

Then the fiercely talented McDonagh returned to the stage with his first play set in America. A Behanding in Spokane, which ran on Broadway in 2010, is clearly a McDonagh play, what with the desperation, the black comedy and the flying body parts. But this is minor McDonagh, and, in fact, Behanding is a pretty lousy play.

The characters are, at best, sketched in, and the thrust of the play is that cruelty breeds loneliness, young people are idiots and racism is hilarious. There are moments of tension in the play, but they just as quickly go slack, and a 90-minute play ends up feeling like a needlessly prolonged sketch.

Bay Area audiences get their first whack at Behanding in a sturdy production from SF Playhouse, efficiently directed by Susi Damilano and cast with four appealing actors. But try as they might, this team can’t make much of a play that lets them down at every turn.

Rod Gnapp, no stranger to intensity on stage, is Carmichael (a role originated on Broadway by the King of Quirk himself, Christopher Walken), a stranger in town looking for the hand that a group of bullies supposedly removed – with the help of a speeding train – 27 years before. In a stained and decrepit hotel room (realistic set by Bill English), Carmichael is in the midst of a deal gone bad. Two young con artists, Daveed Diggs as Toby and Melissa Quine as Marilyn, have failed in a big way to deliver what they had promised: Carmichael’s long, lost hand.

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Attempts to create tension involving candles in gas cans, handcuffs and guns flare up and fade quickly. The plot, such as it is, goes nowhere, and the play’s conclusion is confusing, sentimental and ridiculous.

Gnapp’s performance as Carmichael delves into some depth, but the skilled actor can only go so far before McDonagh’s shell of a character just crumbles. Alex Hurt is superb as Mervyn, the spaced-out guy from the reception desk who kinda wants to be a hero and kinda has a death wish. For some inexplicable reason, he has a direct-address monologue to the audience that, while funny, is completely out of step with the rest of the play. At least Mervyn offers a fresh perspective on this strange hybrid of noir-meets-Western – film tropes that fail connect on stage.

When Carmichael and Mervyn begin to connect – psychopath attracts psychopath – the play comes to life in a way it hasn’t, but then that promise fades into that previously mentioned horrible ending.

And then there’s the casual racism that’s supposed to be funny, funny in a way that exposes how horrible and out of date it’s supposed to be. But McDonagh has thrown this element into the mix only halfheartedly. Are the nearly 20 mentions of the “n-word” really worth it in the end? Absolutely not – not funny, not interesting, not revealing.

[bonus interview]

I chatted with Behanding director Susi Damilano, actor Rod Gnapp and properties master Jacquelyn Scott for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.


Martin McDonagh’s A Behanding in Spokane continues through June 30 at SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$70. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.